Before we sit down to our annual feast of plump turkey and candied yams, tart cranberries and buttery pumpkin pie, we should think back on our first Thanksgiving holiday. No, I'm not talking about the humble meal celebrated at Plymouth Rock in 1621 by the Pilgrims who had survived their first harsh year with the help of the local Indians.
The first national Thanksgiving holiday occurred in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. (Congress established the fourth Thursday in November as a permanent federal holiday in 1941.)
President Lincoln's proclamation came when the country was engaged in a fight for its national survival. Americans were killing one another on battlefields as the Civil War raged. Just days before he issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, President Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address, dedicating a national cemetery on a portion of the Pennsylvania battlefield where an estimated 7,500 men had died. Some one half million men died during the four years of the Civil War, a number nearly as great as all other wars in which the United States has fought combined.
Yet, the president told the American people in his Thanksgiving proclamation that despite the "needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle of the ship. ... " America remained strong and vibrant -- and united -- even though her young men were dying on battlefields drenched with blood.
America's prosperity and good fortune, President Lincoln reminded his countrymen, were not the result of man's doing. "No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things," he wrote. "They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."
President Lincoln asked Americans to set aside one day a year "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." President Lincoln believed that God would continue to bless us despite "our national perverseness and disobedience" if we demonstrated our "humble penitence." We could do so by giving thanks for the blessings God had bestowed on our nation, "solemnly, reverently and gratefully ... as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."
The president's words might sound quaint today -- and, no doubt, some would argue they breached the wall of separation between religion and government. But belief in God has been the bedrock on which the nation was founded -- the idea proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
We've largely forgotten the true meaning of Thanksgiving in recent years. Too many of us celebrate the day not with prayers but by gorging ourselves on turkey and football. It has become our national Indulgence Day -- as if we needed a national excuse to eat too much or lie around watching the tube for hours on end.
Today, American soldiers are still giving their lives to protect the American union -- this time from attacks by fanatics who slaughter not only soldiers but innocent women and children in an unholy war that blasphemes the very Allah in whose name it is waged.
In 1863, President Lincoln asked that Americans, while thanking God for His blessings, "commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers" in the Civil War. This Thanksgiving Day many families will be missing a son or daughter, a mother or father, a husband or wife, who have given their lives to protect the rest of us. We owe these families our gratitude and our prayers.
Before we take that first bite of turkey, shouldn't we take time, too, to seek God's protection for our troops, fighting to secure freedom for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and security for us at home? This, after all, was the spirit that motivated the first Thanksgiving holiday.